Be-Bop Is: The Music of the Future

The title is attributed to the foremost tenor saxophonist of the be-bop era, Dexter "LTD" Gordon. On his album, American Classics, in an interview, Gordon is quoted with this phrase, "Be-bop is the music of the future." Having made his mark as the "Sophisticated Giant" of the be-bop school, Gordon was the first musician ever to be nominated for an academy award. Gordon portrayed Dale Turner in producer, Bertrand Tavernier's, most praised jazz film, "Round Midnight."

Let's take a look at be-bop. Producer Tavernier had this to say, "Be-bop musicians are the real geniuses of the world. They created the only music in American that has never been co-opted or bastardized by the system." And from Dizzy Gillespie we have "It is a most serious music ever made in American, and a lot of people have died for it." And from Theolonius Monk "If you really understand the meaning of be-bop, you understand the meaning of freedom." And Dexter Gordon thinks this way "Be-bop is such a light name for such a demanding music."

So Gordon thinks be-bop is a demanding music. In the eyes of most, he's right; not only is it demanding, it abodes with harmonic complexities. Modernism of the 1940's, as some call it, better known as be-bop, was looked at as a vehicle to shake off white plagiarists. On the other side of the fulcrum, we have the most gifted, and the greatest innovator of melody in the history of jazz, Charlie "BIRD" Parker.

Parker explained this jazz idiom, bebop, in technical terms that, in a sense, qualify the term used above-harmonic complexities. It was BIRD'S philosophy that, by gradually developing a system of substitute chords, then superimpose them on the original chords and play in double the time of the tempo executed by the rhythm section, this alto saxophonist, a gifted executant, and who embraced a harmonic tidal wave with his concept of chord substitution, changed the face of jazz!

If we look deeper into Parker's notion of chord substitution, and use the Circle of Fifths (WHOOPS-I forgot mine trust me, it works), we can show two examples. With these two original chords, F7 and Bbmi7, we then superimpose them on substitute chords in the Circle of Fifths, we have B7 and Emi7. What Parker is referring to here is to play the notes of the F7 along with the substitute chord, B7; same with the other two chords; this very definitely adds complexity for the neophyte!

From the video documentary, "The Story of Jazz," jazz saxophonist Jimmy Heath had this to say about Bebop: "Prior to bebop, it was a concentration of swing and all that entails. Bebop incorporated swing, plus a newer way of playing lines, that were more, I would say, scientific and deeper. It required deeper knowledge of chords, and the music ." From the same video documentary, Berks "DIZZY" Gillespie had this to say about Charlie Parker and bebop: "Charlie Parker had a new approach to playing music. We had the music, but we didn't have the ah how do you say, the pyrotechnics."

Jimmy Heath said it right with the word, scientific; systematized knowledge which is derived from the study and experimentation with the harmonic spectrum which abodes in music. For musicians, be-bop is an on going quest in search of new ways of weaving in and out of the harmonic and rhythmic structure of a tune that will produce a new melodic line by experimentation. And for Dizzy, his pyrotechnics was another way of implementing the tools of the trade needed to execute the complexities of bebop; a dazzling display of the eloquence and virtuosity, both of which are derivatives from the very roots of be-bop; the manifestation of harmonic and rhythmic experimentation to be lord and master of the idiosyncrasies abode within the harmonic structure available to the executant to evolve with a new way of playing music.

When we combine the harmonic and rhythmic complexities mentioned, and, playing in double the time of the tempo from the rhythm section, we have an executant who will venture into an orbital harmonic escapade reaching the outer limits of musical creativity; this ongoing quest in search of new harmonics and melodic lines can, and has, pushed some musicians of this era into the shadows; the womb of drug addition. The tragic death of Charlie Parker in 1955, was symbolic of the tragic horror other musicians might face; Parker died at 34 years.

From a technical point of view, Parker played a more complex form of jazz; he purified it emotionally, and his famous blues recordings showed the profound influence of the genius, the King of Jazz Trumpet, Louis Armstrong and his "Hot Five." Parker could not have realized it, but he was making, on behalf of jazz, the last great, but idiosyncratic, use of a unique musical terrain.

So it is that Parker made be-bop complicated-if you are to play as he did; and for others, difficult to handle. This unique form of jazz will always behold the very essence of what jazz is all about; it represents the truth and as Monk said, if you understand the meaning of be-bop, you understand the meaning of freedom it has been sanctified; it represents the only never changing style of jazz-outside its' own structure-the only form of jazz that is not in a state of flux; it remains stalwart within the pillars of the cosmos, it can never be replaced with any other form of jazz; be-bop is be-bop, it's that simple! And as producer, Bertrand Tavernier had said, "Be-bop is the only music that has never been bastardized by the system."

Meanwhile, back on stage, where harmonics are chasing each other across the key signature line at blazing speeds, musicians meet their challenge; playing at very fast tempos-the true test, that can set aside those who can't, and allow to the forefront, those who can! We may hear that which is alleged jazz, but don't be fooled; the roots of be-bop are cast in double time figures, back down to a ballad, and substitute chords-all cast in concrete-not to be altered in any way.

In 1945, Dizzy Gillespie was booked into Billy Berg's club in Hollywood; he went to the coast with a sextet-Parker, Milt Jackson, and Al Haig were with him. Upon hearing their first taste of be-bop, the reaction from the audience was indifferent-no emotion, and fluctuation-unstable; they were not ready for this new way of playing jazz. When Parker sensed this, he too became unstable and upset; he failed to get to the gig so often, Dizzy was asked to hire Lucky Thompson as a standby. When the gig was over, Dizzy returned to New York, and Parker was to remain in California for awhile.

On the night of the last would-be gig, Parker and Dizzy show up in front of Berg's in different cars, and from different directions. Dizzy gives Bird the bad news and, their radio spots had been canceled too. On the way to their cars, Bird turns to Dizzy with his hand out and does a little scat

"Berks, do-do-do dwe-yah " Berks heard this, turned around and together "Dweh dweh dweh dweh du-waaaaaaaaaa .." It was apparent that this was another way of saying, so long for now. From the book, "The Legend of Charlie Parker," by Bob Reisner, heres' a few words from Dizzy about his comrade in arms, Bird: "We were always friends. Sometimes I would beat his brains out in chess, but there was never any ill feelings between us. When ever we met, we would kiss on the mouth. People want to believe there was animosity. The press likes it; it makes good copy."

"They wanted to know why I left him in California. I didn't. I gave him his fare and he spent it and stayed on. People would say to me, "Bird invented be-bop," and I would answer, "He did." Then they would say, "Then where do you come in?" Even my wife Lorraine always says, "Bird plays more coherently then you do." There's a lot more, but I must leave you with the film, "BIRD," produced and directed by Clint Eastwood.

The two main pioneers of be-bop were Charles "BIRD" Parker and John Berks "DIZZY" Gillespie. At times, Parker would refer to Dizzy as, "the other half of my heart beat." From 1942 to 1946, Gillespie and Parker worked in close company; first in the big bands of Earl "Father" Hines and Billy Eckstine, and later in small groups which they led as co-leaders. After 1946, Dizzy went on to lead the first big band in modern jazz; he carried on with the be-bop tradition.

Tradition? What is the be-bop tradition; better yet, what is be-bop? Is there a finite definition of be-bop? The answer is no; it means something different to different musicians. However, if we could postulate a reasonable definition that would at least hold water, what would it be? Be-bop is consecrated-sanctified-by the interpretation given to it by the musicians who play it; they sanctify be-bop as an exploration into the unknown possibilities which lie abode within the harmonic and rhythmic nature of the music.

How about this one; be-bop is a musical ritual, and to perform within its' constructs, any way you travel, is to acknowledge its' existence; your testimonial that be-bop does exist-you played it! Sever the chains that bind you within the harmonic and rhythmic elements of the original music; let freedom ring as we explore, analyze, and search out new methods and manifestations for playing the original music-deviate from the norm!

We have mentioned the two pioneers of be-bop as being Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie BIRD Parker, but what about the others; there were many. Lets go to the video documentary, "The Story of Jazz," and let the great pianist, Randy Weston, give us a run down on be-bop and some of the musicians that made it what it is today: " this was the place (Minton's Playhouse, Harlem) where ya know, Monk got together with and was playing along with Charlie Christian and this is when they created this music be-bop. How it happened we never really know it's kind of something like a miracle to have Dizzy, Charlie Parker, and Miles, they all get together and create this music called be-bop." Now Randy gives us some names, all of which play be-bop: " Monk played a certain way, Bud Powell played a certain way, Herbie Nickels played a certain way, Miles Davis played a certain way, Fats Navarro played a certain way it was called be-bop, but in a way, they all had their own individual expression." Randy knew of that which he spoke. About be-bop, I'll take the out-chorus, then we'll look at a few more proponents of this rather unique form of jazz. Be-bop is nothing more than a manifestation of the individualistic interpretation of harmonic and rhythmic phenomena aboding within the structure of the music being played; it's that simple! Need anything more be said.

One of the great jazz standards by Kaper/Washington is "Green Dolphin Street." It was originally written in C concert. As a young saxophonist, I would play it C; such a bland sound in that key. There are only two musicians whose recordings of this classic keep it alive; Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis; they play it in Eb concert. When I first heard Miles's version, I experienced a revelation; in Eb, the sonorities, and the overtones were so rich in harmonic quality. Miles plays the standard with such a delectable style; maybe this will explain Miles's philosophy:

In an interview some time back, Miles was asked "Miles, what about all the other trumpeters who play a lot of fast notes, why don't you play like that?" Miles responded with this "They're searching for the pretty one's I found them!"

In his version of Green Dolphin Street, Miles takes an improvised chorus; I think he uses all of four notes in the first eight-bars. But like he said, those four notes emanating from the harmon mute in is horn, are the pretty ones. The intonation and his choice selection of notes, puts Miles a step above others that prefer to run up and down the scale in search of what Miles had already found-charisma using as few notes as possible and still convey the message from the composer's original work.

Jazz was to take on a new harmonic flavor when one of Parkers' entourage, his disciple, emerged on the scene; trumpeter, Miles Davis. However, it wasn't until 1956, the year after Parker' s death, that Davis made a logically connected attempt to break loose from the confines of dissension to resolution; this method being persistently explored, as it were, gave rise to some of the musicians in Davis's generation who felt the usefulness of be-bop had come to an end. In his album, "Kind of Blue," Davis stepped out of the be-bop idiom when he substituted modal patterns (scales not based on major or minor) for the more conventional harmonic one's; first step in a process that was to characterize jazz for years to come.

Around 1932, if you were to look in the direction of Harlem, you would see harmonic and rhythmic dust hovering over a place called, "Minton's Playhouse," the birthplace of Be-bop-the most demanding form of jazz ever. Around 1940, Minton's was taken over by a tenor saxophonist, Henry Minton; this Harlem night club became known for it's jam sessions that took place on Monday nights. The list of young jazz dignitaries, in part, were to become the greatest of that era, they were: Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, and of course, Charlie "BIRD" Parker. These sessions-work shops-would evolve into an environment that would attract newcomers to a new form of jazz

The sessions brought forth a new musical idiom of resonance; a resonance of what was then, an unknown harmonic commodity; through experimentation, which led to innovation, these young musicians would produce a totally new way in which to play music. Through his boldness of harmonies, Monk provided a stimulus to his comrades, a stimulus that surfaced new harmonic and rhythmic displacement. It was BIRD, with his innovative mind, who came up with the concepts of chord substitution, chord expansion, crossing over the bar line, going into a new key, and more that others were to follow.

Speaking of BIRD, let us go back and add something about the incredible speed at which Parker could make his fingers move when he was blowing up-tempo or a ballad. No one could have put it better than Leonard Feather: "Birds mind and fingers work with incredible speed. He can imply four chord changes in a melodic pattern, where other musicians would have trouble inserting two."

Now that you have been indoctrinated into the idiosyncratic nature of the complexities of be-bop, and your ready to blow your horn, you might ask is be-bop still being played? You bet it is! However, it has taken on a new form as of early 1972; it is played by a nine piece ensemble which dates back to it's inception early 1972. The story goes down something like this:

One chilly night in early 1972, I had just finished a big band gig at a hotel near the runway of LA International. It was the first debut of that fabulous ensemble that go by the name of, "SUPER SAX." They were appearing at the famous "Lighthouse" in Hermosa Beach, Ca. I walked in and took a seat at the bar across from the group. Other than playing some great charts, the group was formed to carry on the tradition of be-bop and especially to play the music of Charlie Parker. Before I go any further, lets take a look on stage and see whose playing.

The original group included nine musicians: Med Flory (lead) and Bill Perkins- altos, Jay Migliori and Warren Marsh-tenors, Jack Nimitz-baritone, Buddy Clark-bass and arranger, Ronnel Bright-piano, Jake Hanna-drums, and standing behind the reeds, Conte Condoli-trumpet. The reed voicing was written in close block harmony, with the baritone an octave below the lead alto and the tempos, yes, written as BIRD would play them with blazing fingers fast! The whole concept of Super Sax was conceived around Bird and his music.

Now that you know whose who in the group, if you've ever heard these cats play their ax, then you have heard the best that jazz has to offer. The charts are designed for the reeds, with trumpet solos as the charts dictate, which is often. The rhythm section is there providing an uncompromising flow of harmonic and rhythmic structure in support of the trumpet and reeds; with fervor, the be-bop entourage brings Charlie Parker's notion of harmonics and double time phrasing to fruition!

Here's a few notes of interest about Super Sax. On stage, the reeds sit on bar stools, with the music stands raised accordingly. In this fashion, the reeds have an edge; being close enough to the charts to clearly capture every phrase-to feel it! Before their debut in 1972, the reeds rehearsed in Bill Perkin's garage for close to a year. This had nothing to do with their reading ability, remember, these musicians are of the finest grade; Parker's music is not easy to read and when you put five saxophones together reading four part block harmony at blazing tempos that Parker had prescribed, you have reached a new plateau of reading new horizons of the intellect minded by Bird and his musical genius.

The original intent of this colossal group, Super Sax, was to play and record the music of Bird. There are a number of CD's on the market, a few of which, I'll share with you. But over the years, they recorded some more contemporary CD's, one of the tunes is "Wave," by Antonio Carlos Jobin. In this chart, the rhythm section tempo is 126 on the metronome. This means the reeds, when playing double time phrases will ride the metronome at 252; this means some fancy finger-work for the five saxophones. The chart, being 44 bars, goes down something like this:

"Wave" by Antonio Carlos Jobin: "The reeds take the first 12-bars, trumpet, the second 12-bars; reeds share the bridge with the trumpet; from there on out, after a piano solo and other than several profoundly executed double time phrases from the reeds, it becomes an exchange between the reeds and trumpet-one providing background for the other, the chart gradually fades out with a vamp."

Charles Christopher Parker took his leave from be-bop on March 12, 1955; and behold, the tradition-his new way of playing music-lingers on with the artistry of the musicians that make Super Sax sing like Bird did, and other groups and musicians that can manifest the necessary skills to perform this demanding music. However, Birds ideology, his notions, of which there are many, and his charismatic personality that abodes in his music, have proven the test of time!

So it was, in 1971, lurking within the walls of Bill Perkin's garage, were nine of the most competent and knowledgeable musicians existent; running down charts scored by Buddy Clark. One year later, these remarkable cats scored, and scored big, with their first debut to premier Bird's ideology; the overall sound of Super Sax is like Bird, only in the fifth dimension; a dimension of the cosmos that will always be undisputed. In my professional opinion, "Super Sax" will be here long after we're gone; to preserve the legacy of Charles Christopher Parker AKA "BIRD."

CD's of Super Sax:

Super Sax "The Japanese Tour" HCD-618

Live In 75 Super Sax "The Japanese Tour Vol. 2" HCD-622

Live In 75 Super Sax "Super Sax plays Bird" CDP 7 96264 2

As long as Super Sax is around ..so will Be-bop.

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